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December 15, 2018

Serious doubts about Kigali

In this capital city, there seemed little understanding that the problems of poverty in Africa do not spring from a lack of knowledge or innovation but from a lack of accountability
In this capital city, there seemed little understanding that the problems of poverty in Africa do not spring from a lack of knowledge or innovation but from a lack of accountability

Kigali is impressive. From its clean streets and new buildings to the ubiquitous sense of safety and order, it is today hailed as a model for capital cities across the continent. Similarly hailed is the Rwandan government, which has transformed the country — phoenix-like — from the ashes of the 1994 genocide into the rising star of Africa.

Last week, a network of bloggers on the continent, of which I am a part, was invited to a brainstorming session in this city on how to engage in policy discourses with governments on the subject of supporting digitally-driven innovation across the continent. The Rwandan state has set itself up as a driving force in the field, with President Paul Kagame chairing the board of Smart Africa, which seeks to “accelerate socioeconomic development through information and communications technologies”.

At about the same time, 750km to the east, yet another State House Summit was getting underway in Nairobi. According to press reports, President Uhuru Kenyatta had invited his administration’s “harshest critics” to a televised pow-wow on corruption. Two specified critics — John Githongo and David Ndii — did not honour the summons, earning themselves a Presidential rebuke and much ridicule from ruling party supporters. But I think the two experienced hands had seen something my friends in Kigali seemed unwilling to acknowledge: That “engagement” is a two-way street. 

In Kenya, as Ndii noted in an article explaining his absence, the problem is neither that government is unaware of corruption nor is it ignorant of the questions raised about its custody of public finances. Its own agencies have documented much of this. The real problem is the lack of will within the governing elite which perpetrates the looting to do something about it. There is no appetite not just to prosecute friends and political allies, but more fundamentally, to restructure the state to eliminate the opportunities and impunity that incentivise graft.

In such an environment, the State House “engagements” would be of limited utility for those demanding reform and accountability while gifting the government a massive propaganda opportunity to burnish its anti-corruption credentials. In the end, the absence of Githongo and Ndii forced the spotlight back on the government’s lack of action rather than on its rhetoric, which dissolved in a flurry of buck-passing led by the responsibility-ducking Commander-in-Chief, himself. #CryBabyPresident was how Kenyans on Twitter summarised it.

In Kigali, there seemed little understanding that the problems of poverty on the continent does not spring from a lack of knowledge or innovation but rather from a lack of accountability and democracy. The poor Africans my friends sought to help were largely impoverished by the very governments they sought to engage — who were stealing from them, fueling the conflicts that displaced them and denying them a say in decisions affecting their own lives. Apart from Kagame, the Smart Africa Board is peopled by such luminaries as Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Gabon’s Ali Bongo, South Sudan’s Salva Kiir, Chad’s Idriss Deby, and, of course, Kenya’s Uhuru.

Engagement with such a gang risks affording them an opportunity to hide their sins under the carpet of innovation and broadband access. 

In fact, all the talk of transforming communities and making them smarter and more innovative seems to completely elide the fact that it is governments and the states they serve that require transformation. There is little talk of who actually benefits from the ICT Hubs and events established and held across the continent, most in the wealthier parts of capital cities.

And speaking of capital cities, with all its impressive progressive, it is easy to miss what Kigali hides. The unspoken conversations, the disappearances and assassinations, the rounding up of street families so visiting potentates can enjoy a view unblemished by evidence of failure. Yes, Kigali is safe, but safe for whom? Yes, it is clean, but clean for whom? Yes, it works, but works for whom?

These are questions any who purport to be interested in the welfare of the continent’s people, rather than that of “Africa” must be willing to engage with.

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